Common grace and common good

I recently gave a series on the theme of common grace. It was eye-opening for all of us.

My practical emphasis focused on our calling to be agents of common grace who are committed to the welfare of the city of our exile. The basis for this model is the word given to God’s people in Jeremiah 29:40-7.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’”

The callings and concerns of seeking common good with and for those who are unredeemed have profound theological foundations on at least three levels of shared life. Everyone in the world can come together around three areas of commonality.  

  1. Common origin and image: God’s ownership and God’s image as a universal reality.
  2. Common Concerns: stewardship of the earth as our shared dwelling place.
  3. Common Connections: Accessibility to truth about God, moral order and transcendence.

Human flourishing and the common good are most significantly based on the image of God in humans. The universal reality of the image of God is part of the case for believing that, “God has lawfully ordered his creation in a way that all human beings have some sort of cognitive access to that lawfulnes” (Richard Mouw). Romans 2:15-16 appear to validate this cognitive access — even among those who don’t have access to Scripture.

The reality and realm of common grace presuppose an ability to have rational conversations about a common good between redeemed and unredeemed. Obviously in some political circumstances, Christians must accept limitations and seek other means of influence because they are not permitted to participate in choosing laws and policies. But, as long as we live in a system that allows us a seat at the table, why shouldn’t we join in seeking the good that leads to laws and policies? Why would we neglect such a privilege?

Dialogue and persuasion in these settings does not require quotation of biblical chapters and verses. Yet this does not mean that truth-based input is not possible. We can articulate a worldview that honors our Creator without verbalizing references to the Bible. We can also hope for some of these truths to resonate with a general population.

There are many ways to have conversations and we need more thoughtful creativity about the best ways to engage others in these contexts. More importantly, all that we have to say should be deeply rooted in the two great commands to love God and neighbor.

How could those who honor the Creator and care about a common good for His creatures withdraw from the table where policies and laws are formed that profoundly effect the people? 

Steve Cornell

God will not be mocked

Many years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr warned against proclaiming, “a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

His words have a sad prophetic feel to them as I look at the landscape not merely of mainline protestant denominations, but of popular evangelicalism.

The subtlety of how this often begins is captured in the following advice. 

“We shall do well to play down the picture of God or Christ as Judge. A range of alternative models, the healer, the therapist, the patient lover, the counselor, all seem more appropriate for bringing out the primary interest of divine judgment, namely, the restoration of the creature to integrity and the winning of his love, despite what he has done or made of himself in the past” (B. Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 215). 

I suspect that this counsel would be heard by many (even among evangelical leaders) as wise. But it’s actually very dangerous in that it risks a therapeutic gospel where a Savior from sin might feel unnecessary — or at least not the most pressing concern. 

Ultimately, we must see that this kind of counsel mocks God by proposing man-centered philosophy in the place of the word of God, the cross of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Those who faithfully proclaim a God of righteous judgment will increasingly find themselves on the outside if this counsel prevails. 

God’s servants in Old Testament times faced similar challenges:

  • II Chronicles 36:16 – “But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.”
  • Ezekiel 8:17-18 – “Have you seen this, son of man?” he asked. “Is it nothing to the people of Judah that they commit these detestable sins, leading the whole nation into violence, thumbing their noses at me, and provoking my anger? Therefore, I will respond in fury. I will neither pity nor spare them. And though they cry for mercy, I will not listen.” 

Let us heed the warning, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

Let us also remind ourselves of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as taught by Jesus himself, “…when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” (John 16:8-9).

The apostle Paul closed his message to the philosophers of Athens declaring that, “God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

Salvation occurs in connection with a series of experiences that trace to judgment and guilt. Four sequential elements are involved – conviction, contrition, confession and conversion.

Steve Cornell

Social Justice and the Church

The Church is in need of a far deeper understanding of what it means for believers to be agents of common grace who are committed to the welfare of the city of our exile.

This calling is rooted in our identity as salt to the earth and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). It also has profound theological foundations on at least three levels of shared life between redeemed and unredeemed.

1. Common origin: God’s ownership and image as a universal human reality.
2. Common Concerns: stewardship of the earth as a shared dwelling place
3. Common Connections: accessible truth about God, moral order and transcendence.

This part of our mission is largely built on truth about the universal human reality of the Imago Dei (the image of God). It provides a case for believing that, “God has lawfully ordered his creation in a way that all human beings have some sort of cognitive access to that lawfulness” (Richard Mouw). Romans 2:15-16 appear to validate this cognitive access — even among those who don’t have access to Scripture.

The realm of common grace presupposes an ability to have rational conversations about a common good with fellow human beings. In some political circumstances Christians must accept limitations and pursue other means of influence because they are not permitted to participate in choosing laws and policies. But as long as we live in a system that allows us to sit at the table to seek the good that leads to laws and policies, why would we neglect such a privilege? 

Are there social, cultural and political agents of change ordained by God for the common good? Yes. And these are His gifts of common grace. Parents and authorities are two of the primary examples (Ephesians 6:1Romans 13:1-4). Society benefits when parents are attentive and diligent. We need laws and law enforcement to protect us. We also need mentors to train us.

We can engage in truth-based dialogue and persuasion in settings like family, work, community and government without quoting biblical chapters and verses. When sensitivities are high to separation of Church and Sate, explicit use of Scripture in dialogue about public policy will be more quickly dismissed. 

We can confidently articulate a worldview that honors our Creator and Savior without verbalizing explicit references to the Bible. We can also hope for some of these truths to resonate with the general public.  Never forget that each person brings a worldview to discussions about moral and social issues. Many of our laws and policies reflect moral and worldview commitments.  

What we need is more thoughtful creativity about the best ways to engage the public in serious dialogue and persuasive thinking on current social issues. Frankly, what I’m advocating will require a deep understanding of the unfolding narative of Scripture in shaping our worldview. 

How could those who honor the Creator refuse to care about a common good for His creatures? How could we withdraw from the table of discussion where the policies and laws are formed that profoundly impact our neighbors?

Of course, all activity on this level can never displace the greater needs we have as human beings. The human need is far deeper than social or cultural change. Our nature itself must change. We need a change of being or ontological transformation. This change only comes through God’s gift of spiritual regeneration in the gospel. Rules and laws can be used to regulate behaviors but a change of being is nothing short of a creative act of God.

God said, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). We need a recreation or new creation by the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) for the restoring of God’s image in us.

Steve Cornell


God and His World

    • “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (Deuteronomy 10:14).
    • “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).
    • “Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:10-11).
    • “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25).
    • “From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place God watches all who live on earth — He who forms the hearts of all, who considers
everything they do” (Psalm 33:13-15).

¨“Every human being on the planet is known by God, considered and evaluated by God, called to account by God” ¨“To be human is to be addressable by one’s Creator—with no regard for ethnicity or covenant status. God can speak to an Abimelech or a Balaam or a Nebuchadnezzer as easily as an Abraham, a Moses or a Daniel.” (C. Wright, The Mission of God)

Question: ¨How should I live each day in light of what I have learned about God and His world?

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who 
belong to the family of believers” (Galatians  6:9-10). 
(See also:¨Matthew 5:13-16; 28:18-20; Colossians 4:5-6; I Peter 3:14-15).

Steve Cornell

See Also: Does God Control Everything?

All for the gospel

Manifesto for our mission:

“I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (I Corinthians 9:23) 

πάντα δὲ ποιῶ διὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, ἵνα συγκοινωνὸς αὐτοῦ γένωμαι.

We cannot live this way unless we practice the mind of Christ in all our relationships (a kenosis mentality — Philippians 2:3-11). 

Three tensions we embrace: (from the late John R. W. Stott)

  1. “Culturalizing without compromising”
  2. “Permeation without contamination”
  3. “Identifying without losing our identity.”

Three challenges for the Church: (from the late John R. W. Stott)

  1. Breaking out of the safety of our Christian stockades
  2. Entering sympathetically into the dilemmas of our contemporaries.
  3. Applying Biblical solutions to unmask false and harmful ideologies.

Profile of a Disciple of Christ

Followers of Christ are called to the greatest work on earth: Making Disciples!

Before leaving the world,

“Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, NLT).

Jesus repeatedly identified true discipleship and thus defined the task of making disciples. He gave us a great profile of a true disciple in the eight beatitudes and metaphors of salt and light (Matthew 5:1-16). We also learn from Him that a true disciple is:

1. One who openly confesses Jesus Christ (Matthew 10:32-33Mark 8:38II Timothy 2:12-13).

2. One who obeys Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20John 8:31; cf. 14:1515:14Luke 6:46; cf. Matthew 7:21 w/12:46-50.

3. One who suffers for Jesus Christ (Luke 9:23I Peter 2:214:1John 15:18-21Matthew 5:11-12Mark 8:34-3510:29-30).

4. One who loves other believers in Jesus Christ (John 13:34-35I John 5:1; cf. Matthew 10:34-3812:46-50Ephesians 4:3Philippians 2:14-15).

5. One who becomes like Jesus Christ (Luke 6:40; cf. Romans 8:28-29a13:14Galatians 4:19I John 3:2-3)

Steve Cornell

Focused on three callings

By staying focused on three main callings, we’ll experience much stronger unity as followers of Christ. Focus on….

1. Your Moment (past salvation)
2. Your Mission (present calling)
3. Your Master (future meeting)

(Audio link below)

Your moment

This is the “I get it” moment when I realize my sin required the sacrifice of the life of the Son of God for me to be forgiven and reconciled to God. This includes the sobering fact that nothing I do can change my standing with God. 

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3;4-5). 

I must have an Advocate with the Father, “Jesus Christ the righteous one” (I John 2:1-2). I need a “merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2:17), one who is able to  “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15), and “able to save completely those who come to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25).

“O God of grace, I have no robe to bring to cover my sins, no loom to weave my own righteousness; I am always standing clothed in filthy garments, and by grace am always receiving change of clothing, for You always justify the ungodly; I am always going into the far country, and always returning home as a prodigal, always saying, Father, forgive me, and You are always bringing forth the best robe.” (Puritan prayer)

Your mission

“You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). But salt must retain its saltiness and not become contaminated. Light must be allowed to shine. As salt, we serve a restraining function – deterring social and moral deterioration. As light, we dispel the darkness of sin and unbelief — reaching out to those who sit in the darkness. When we stay on mission we’re more likely to keep the main thing the main thing. We’re less likely to attach our hearts to issues unrelated to the kingdom and eternity. 

Your Master

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:9-10). As servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must give an account of our service. This meeting  before His judgment seat is closer with each passing day. Focus on this appointment should cause us to “make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it” (II Corinthians 5:9).

  • The evaluation of each believer will be a time of personal accountability when our works will be evaluated by the Lord (II Corinthians 5:9-10; Rom. 14:10-12; Heb. 13:17).
  • The result will either be reward or loss (I Cor. 3:11-15; cf. Phil. 3:5-8; Rev. 3:11; II Cor. 5:10) and possibly even shame (I Jn. 2:28).
  • Judgment is not about destiny. Our eternal destiny is settled in this life. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (John 3:36).
  • Judgment is focused on our service — the things done while in the body. 
  • Evaluation of service for God is based on the motives of the heart behind the service (I Corinthians 4:5).
  • Our motives have some relationship with the quality and enduring significance of our service (I Cor. 3:11-15; II Cor. 5:10).

Jesus gave the best explanation of concern for motives. He warned about doing “works of righteousness” (like giving, praying and fasting) with the motive of being seen by man (Matthew 6:1-21). If gaining recognition and human honor is my motivation, in Jesus’ words, “you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). There will be no enduring fruit and reward for such service.

Our deeds will be “good or bad” in relation to their enduring quality. Service for the Lord endures (like “gold, silver and costly stones,” I Corinthians 3:12-13) when done “in secret” for God’s glory. Jesus said, “…your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4,6,18).

Service that does not endure is without reward (burned up like “wood, hay or straw”). This is the kind of service that is done for attention and praise from man. When praying, giving or fasting, Jesus warned against prostituting what is sacred to promote yourself.

The apostle taught that each person’s work “will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light” (I Corinthians 3:13). When the Lord comes, “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God” (I Corinthians 4:5).

Stay focused on

1. Your Moment (past salvation)

  • John 1:12-13; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:1-7
  • II Corinthians 5:17-21

2. Your Mission (present calling)

  • Matthew 5:13-16
  • Matthew 28:18-20

3. Your Master (future meeting)

  • II Corinthians 5:9-10
  • I Corinthians 3:11-15; 4:5; Matthew 6:1

Audio version here

Steve Cornell